Part VIII: Islam, the Pope, and History: Even the Past Must Submit
By Abu Daoud
We were in a taxi and I was listening to the news in Arabic, which is still quite difficult for me since it’s all classical Arabic, and I picked up something about the pope, Pakistan, a Byzantine emperor, and the fact that many Muslims were very angry.
The first question that comes to mind is whether in fact Pope Benedict's statement was actually true. Namely, that Islam was spread by military force and (at least up to the time of Emperor Manuel II Paleologus) had made no positive contribution to human society or civilization. Historically, I think it is quite difficult to disagree with this point.
However, there are a number of popular stories (myths I would call them) about the riches of Islamic culture and its contributions to history. I will not say that Islamic civilization (whether of the Arab or Turkish variety) has made no contribution whatsoever to civilization, but I will say that the contribution is extremely minor.
Take for example the myth about Muslims preserving the teachings of Aristotle. Well, it was in a Muslim country, but it was Syriac monks who actually did the copying and the preservation. Or consider the magnificence of the Shrine of the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, which is often pointed to as an instance of the brilliance of Islamic architecture. In fact, when the Muslims entered Jerusalem they were still mostly nomads who would have had little experience in building permanent structures. The design and construction of the Dome of the Rock was indeed carried out under Islamic governance, but by Greek Christians. (When the Crusaders took control of Jerusalem they renamed it the Church of the Holy Land, by the way.)
If one takes a close look at the list of Muslim luminaries in the areas of history and medicine and science, one quickly notices that few of them were born Muslims and educated by Muslims. In general, Muslim rulers would take over a region or area, and a condition for scholars to remain in their positions (often as part of the royal court) was their conversion to Islam. So it is not surprising that most of them had converted from Christianity, Judaism, or (in Persia) Zoroastrianism. (Persian Islam is, of course, different than Arab of Turkish Islam.)
Another popular myth is the regarding the Islamic presence in the Iberian peninsula (Spain) up through the conclusion of the reconquista in 1492. Even by European standards the two Islamic empires that controlled regions in the peninsula were particularly war-ridden and brutal. (And the European standards of the time were not very high!)
If these contributions are so great then how can one account for, say, the decline of Constantinople from being the world center of history, theology, science, and medicine, under Christian rule, to being what it is today: Istanbul. Or how can one account for the fact that, excluding petroleum and natural gas, the entire Middle East and North Africa (minus Israel) contribute to the world's gross product the same percentage as Norway? If Islam is indeed the true religion wherein peace and freedom are united to God's sovereign rule, then why are Muslim countries close to the bottom of the list in terms of freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech? If the first caliphs (successors of Muhammad) where living in Islam's golden age, then how is it that three of the four were assassinated?
So where does this all leave us? Anger seems to be a fundamental aspect of Islamic culture today, and this should worry us. Nevertheless, I hope that the pope will not apologize, he has done nothing wrong, even if it has made many people angry. If anything, he should clearly articulate the challenge: let historians come together for an honest assessment of the growth of Islam and its alleged contributions to humanity.
But there is little room for positive developments, I'm afraid. Within the Arab Muslim world the capacity for critical thought and analysis is close to zero. Thus, since Islam teaches that it is the religion of peace, all things must submit to the teaching--even history. And here is a profound insight: historical facts must conform to the teaching of religion; that is, we do not go to study history to learn more about our religion and how it developed. Rather, we study the Qu'ran which then directs us in determining what history must say. The role of the historian is to figure out how to justify such a reading. Thus, history is a form of apologetics within Islam.
I think that every culture has this tendency: to idealize an earlier period of time as being the golden age. Christians have this, whether it is found in the Apostolic period, the High Middle Ages, the Reformation, or what have you. Countries have it as well. But Islam has a totalizing and universal aspect to it, as does Christianity, but Christian revelation is primarily found in a person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God--not in a book, not even in the Bible. If it were found in a book then God's Word would be frozen in time and inextricably and completely linked to a particular instance of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and political history. But Islam is such a religion, thus it is also a religion that Arabicizes in a very special way. One former Muslim said that Islam destroys cultures, while Christianity fulfills them. And before you think of all the stumbling and ineptitude of colonial missionaries, consider that this man was from Africa, a colonial land par excellence.
I suspect that behind that pope’s comments are questions of historiography, anthropology and the philosophy of history. But they are not simple questions or topics, and the capacity to engage in these discussions is simply not present within the Muslim world. Allahu Akbar! God is Great, and everything must submit to him--including historians and history. This is why we have not seen any reaction to the pope's statement based on historical evidence—the historical evidence is simply not important. One would think that it would be more effective to produce historical evidence that his characterization is not accurate, rather than having parliaments demand apologies and burning effigies of him.
Within Islam, the use of violence and threats of violence to compel a person to admit that Islam is not violent is not contradictory. Both are truths given by God and thus the apparent contradiction is subsumed into the unity (tawhiid) that is God. The violence has changed, but the West is for the most part submitting to Islam. We see this when the press is extra-careful to cast Islam in a positive light using all sorts of misleading euphemisms. One also thinks of recent demonstrations in London where people were allowed to carry signs protesting political leaders in the most violent language, while non-Muslim demonstrators carrying anti-Islamic and anti-Muhammad signs were detained are made to go away. Apparently, the freedom of speech of Muslims is more important than the freedom of speech of non-Muslims in London. This current situation is closely related to the historical discussion, because Islam has viewed the use of violence to secure superiority of rights for Muslims as an expression of God's goodness and sovereignty, and this practice has a long and respected history.
So was Benedict XVI right in drawing out this old document? I am not sure, I would have preferred a more subtle plan including all the Catholic bishops, priests and laypersons here in the ME for the evangelism of Muslims and the planting of home churches for formerly-Muslim believers. The eventual goal would be establishing an underground hierarchy that does not possess any property so that it cannot be manipulated by the state's power over buildings and schools. Well, that is one idea.
But perhaps his provocative reference was made with the desire for a more robust and honest dialogue. If that was his desire I hope he will find a blessing in realizing just how difficult (or impossible some might say) that dialogue is. Every culture and civilization has its own traditions and ways of communicating. Within Islamic civilization the finding of common ground (with other civilizations) has generally occurred when the threat of violence is an incentive, not one of mutual respect but overwhelming superiority of power accompanied by the willingness to use it ruthlessly. This is clearly a problem for Christians for whom violence is never or seldom a positive good. On the other hand, if we think of Tertullian’s famous quote, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, I would simply point out that for any number of reasons, Dar al-Islam is an exception, the blood the of the martyrs here is simply forgotten.
Ultimately, the only possible remedy for this ailing civilization is the Gospel. In the Kingdom of God we do not find complete healing here and now, but we do find substantial healing for our minds and hearts and bodies on the side of the Resurrection. A growing community of believers who have come out of Islam will lead to a Christian community that is bold and creative and knows how to communicate the Gospel to Muslims, unlike the vast majority of Christians here right now.
The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude
By Bat Ye’or
The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of New World Order
By Samuel Huntington
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
By Bernard Lewis
By Efraim Karsh
All three of these authors are excellent in their fields; also worth a read is Daniel Pipes.